GUN AND SWORD: AN ENCYCLOPEDIA OF JAPANESE GANGSTER FILMS 1955-1980

I first became familiar with Chris D.’s (Dejardins) writing in the early 1990s thanks to his work for a small-press magazine (or zine) called Asian Trash Cinema. At the time I was utterly obsessed with Japanese pop culture and history and for a 10 year period roughly between 1991-2001 I spent many of my weekends in San Francisco’s Japantown where I’d rent movies and anime (often without any subtitles), buy manga and books I couldn’t read and eat lots of good meals that I couldn’t pronounce properly. I was also writing and publishing my own zines at the time.

Zine culture peaked in the 1990s before the internet changed the way we all communicate but for a brief time the only place where you could really find good information about cult cinema, B-movies, forgotten gems and unusual art-house films was between the pages of self-published zines and small-press magazines like Psychotronic, Video Watchdog, Shock Cinema and Asian Trash Cinema. These are the kinds of publications that helped shape my own film interests and writing. While many film journalists may have found popular mainstream critics like Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert inspirational, they held little interest for me because they weren’t talking (or writing) about movies that appealed to my own eccentric tastes and if they were, they weren’t particularly kind. But folks like Chris D. were and one of Chris’ early essays from Asian Trash Cinema (Issue #3, 1992) titled YAKUZA EIGA: Losers on Parade is one of my favorite pieces of writing on Japanese cinema.

When Chris D. composed that love letter to gangster (aka yakuza) films that I was just discovering and beginning to appreciate, he was one of a handful of writers trying to thoughtfully grapple with a genre that had been ignored and maligned by critics and scholars for decades. Chris helped me see the often tenuous connection between Japanese cinema and the country’s complex cultural fabric that seemed to confuse and perplex many western writers. I mention all this because I’m not exactly an unbiased reviewer. In fact, Chris and I have exchanged numerous notes over the last few years and I was honored to be asked to write a blurb that appears on his latest book GUN AND SWORD: An Encyclopedia of Japanese Gangster Films 1955-1980. I wanted to share his new book with readers but to be fair I thought I should let you know these facts first. What follows is my honest review of Chris’ latest book but read on at your own discretion.

GUN AND SWORD: An Encyclopedia of Japanese Gangster Films 1955-1980 is a massive tome containing more than 800 pages of reviews and overviews of various gangster films produced in Japan between 1955 and 1980. This was the heyday of Japanese crime cinema that gave birth to directors such as Kinji Fukasaku (who provides the book’s foreword), Seijun Suzuki, Teru Ishii, Nobuo Nakagawa, Shohei Imamura, Yasuharu Hasebe, Keiichi Ozawa, Yasuzo Masumura, Masahiro Shinoda and Kazou Inoue and made stars of actors like Koji Tsuruta, Ken Takakura, Meiko Kaji, Reiko Ike, Miki Sugomoto, Joe Shishido, Yujiro Ishihara, Shintaro Katsu Ayako Wakao, Tetsuya Watari, Sumiko Fuji and Sonny Chiba. These are just a few of the names that appear in this exhaustive volume, which is the result of 25 years of extensive research and writing that included trips overseas and interviews with many industry professionals.

The book is broken up into sections distinguished by the various studios that produced the films (Shintoho, Toei, Nikkatsu, Daiei, Shochiku and Toho) and titles are then listed alphabetically for easy reference. There are also two appendixes of supplementary information on Matatabi (wandering samurai gambler) and related period pictures as well as ATG (Art Theatre Guild) and Independent (Pink and Roman porn) films. Lastly you can also read a revamped version of the author’s invaluable essay Yakuza EIGA: Losers on Parade, which is included as an introduction to the book. As I mentioned previously, this groundbreaking text was an eye-opening read more than a decade ago and it encourages a clearer understanding of Japanese history and culture if you want to truly appreciate yakuza films. But it also highlights why these films need to be reconsidered as the unique, stylish, thought provoking, action oriented and flat out entertaining movies that they are.

The subject of Japanese gangster films is clearly near and dear to the author’s heart and Chris D.’s enthusiasm and genuine respect for the genre is contagious. While reading through GUNS AND SWORD I was inspired to rewatch some of my favorites and seek out films that I’d never heard of before. Fans of his work in Asian Trash Cinema will find the layout and star ratings very familiar and if you cut your teeth on this kind of kinetic, sharp and passionate writing (like I did) you will appreciate his easygoing but informative approach.

My only complaint is that I wish the book contained an index so I could easily cross-reference the names of directors, actors and writers I wanted to research further. Trying to absorb the vast amount of information contained within the pages of GUN AND SWORD can be overwhelming at times and I found myself desperately trying to connect the dots between various filmmakers and their casts and crews. But I suspect the book would be twice the size if an index was included and at its current size it’s already a weighty publication that takes up a lot of space on my bookshelf. What the book does enclose is a handy “Glossary of Japanese Terms” that provides readers with a convenient way to familiarize yourself with important words and phrases that are frequently used in gangster films and occasionally show up in Chris’ own writing.

If you’re a Japanese cinema novice or a longtime fan eager to learn more about the crime genre, GUN AND SWORD: An Encyclopedia of Japanese Gangster Films 1955-1980 is a must read and belongs on your bookshelf along with Chris his previous book, Outlaw Masters of Japanese Film. Both volumes can be purchased at better bookshops as well as Amazon.

by Kimberly Lindbergs, originally published at TCM on May 2, 2013